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Sunday, July 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Chávez backs Iran at summit

The Associated Press

BANJUL, Gambia — The firebrand presidents of Iran and Venezuela took advantage of the 53-nation African Union summit in Gambia's small seaside capital to declare solidarity with the impoverished continent and to lash out at the West.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez backed Iran's controversial nuclear program, which the United States and the European Union want rolled back despite Iran's insistence that its ambitions are peaceful.

"Doesn't Iran have the right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful means?" Chávez said.

Chávez said his nation was "tired of being exploited by the American empire."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused "bullying powers" of plundering the wealth of poorer nations. "They think the countries and nations of the world must be their slaves," Ahmadinejad said. "I know how the oppressed people of Africa and Latin America have suffered."

Ahmadinejad's speech was cut short due to technical difficulties.

A Venezuelan foreign affairs official, Javier Merayo, said Chávez was expected to hold a marathon series of separate talks with 15 African heads of state Saturday.

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh hailed the two leaders' attendance at the summit as "a morale booster as well as an assurance that Africa can make it."

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the African leaders Saturday that Sudan's Darfur conflict is "one of the worst nightmares in recent history," but just one of the challenges facing a continent wracked by war, poverty and disease.

Annan, who is from Ghana, said AIDS rates were dropping in some African countries and investment on the continent was up 200 percent over the past five years.

But "let us not deceive ourselves," he said. "Overall, the number of Africans living in extreme poverty continues to increase. The spread of HIV/AIDS continues to outpace our efforts to halt it. ... The conflicts in Darfur, Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast], Somalia and northern Uganda continue to outrun efforts for a solution."

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